WINTER 2011

ENDGAME IN LIBYA? "Western leaders acknowledged, though, that there was no endgame beyond the immediate United Nations authorization to protect Libyan civilians, and it was uncertain that even military strikes would force Colonel Qaddafi from power," says the New York Times this morning. I see little chance of getting bogged down there. What I do see is no gratifying result to yet another U.S. intervention in the region. Qaddafi seems to have the upper hand and is likely to win this one, with very poor results all round. (March 20)

ANNA BADKHEN, a fine journalist and friend, is writing a very interesting series on Afghanistan on the Foreign Policy site. Here are the first and second installments. Check them out.

GROWNUPS ENTER THE PICTURE.  See this from Hugh Gusterson and the indispensable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the choices about nuclear energy in the U.S. And here, some optimism: A fascinating speculation (from the fascinating Web site, Big Think) on how renewables can fuel the world's economy in a couple of decades. Fingers crossed. (March 17)

THE COMING DEBATE ON NUCLEAR ENERGY will be worth watching, because the usual politics are inverted when it comes to the "peaceful atom." Conservatives love nukes and have always excoriated the cautious (and, I would add, prudent) people who wanted more of a safety cushion, or wanted to forego the nuclear option until its economics and safety could be more attractive. But nuclear energy requires a highly centralized technocracy, a very expensive investment, long-term disruptive options for nuclear waste - all of which, supposedly, are contrary to conservative values. Nuclear energy was born and has survived only because of government management and subsidies. It really is a form of lemon socialism, but the type Republicans tend to love -- where profits are privatized and costs are socialized, that is, passed on to the public.
       In Japan, the overall impacts of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns are colossal for the island, of course, and for the global economy as well. (For an excellent analysis by my MIT colleagues, read this.) The human cost is already horrifying. In terms of nuclear energy's future, however, remember that Japan is one of the most efficient places in the world, with ample experience, skill, and knowledge about the technologies, and longstanding government-industry cooperation. And yet, here the nuclear nightmare is unfolding, with the many mistakes, miscalculations, and poor judgment that can make nuclear power so perilous. It also must be said, as my colleague Jim Walsh pointed out on CNN last night, that leaving the management of this disaster in the hands of a private utility company is crazy.
       So when the debate heats up, watch how the political world stands on its head - the one in Washington, anyway - where the GOP will argue for more lemon socialism, will use global warming as an excuse (the sole case of their embracing this theory), and will pour more taxpayer dollars down the nuclear drain. (March 16.....happy birthday, Char).

IF IRAN, INSTEAD OF SAUDI ARABIA, HAD SENT TROOPS TO BAHRAIN, what do you think the U.S. reaction would be? Belligerent, sabre-rattling, threatening. Take them in front of the Security Council for a dressing down. The usual foot stomping of the former hyperpower. But the Saudis, our good buddies, get virtually no disapproval. The Saudi Arabian state is less democratic than Iran. Human rights are as parlous there as anywhere in the region, or world. It is run by a corrupt "royal family" and an extreme, jihad-loving clergy. They sent money and suicide bombers to fight the occupation of Iraq. They build mosques, many of them led by Wahabbist preachers - no friends of democratic principles there - around the world. They abuse their sizable Shia population (hence the military intervention in Bahrain) and their guest workers, mainly from South Asia. This is our friend and ally. A preposperous, cartoonish, addled kleptocracy. And we do it for our SUVs. (March 15)

THE JAPANESE EARTHQUAKE, nearly unthinkable in its scale and destructiveness, raises the nuclear issue again, and high time it did. A major accident (there are many, many small ones) always refocuses attention on this troublesome technology. I was at TIME magazine when the editor ordered an article on "The Irrational Opposition to Nuclear Power" about six months before the Three Mile Island accident. The author of the piece, Peter Stoler, a nice, earnest fellow, died of cancer a few years after covering the TMI story. I then went to work at the Union of Concerned Scientists on nuclear issues, and wrote my dissertation on energy. So this is all familiar territory.
          The new variable is climate change, which has revived nuclear power's fortunes.
There has been some analysis suggesting the carbon footprint of nuclear power is not better than the cleaner fossil fuels (factoring in the entire life cycle of uranium), but the jury is still out on this, I expect. MIT has done a big report on nuclear, and was somewhat optimistic about tripling U.S. capacity by mid-century, optimism that now will look outdated.
           The bottom line for me--since the energy picture is exceptionally complex in weighing carbon emissions and costs--is that nuclear power has soaked up a colossal amount of U.S. federal subsidies - $100 billion? - and continues to do so. And true life cycle costs remain unaccounted: what to do with decommissioned plants? What about nuclear waste....still the problem no one wants to address? It is common sense to see this as a bad bet after so many years of trying. We're on the verge of some important advances in innovation--efficiency, conservation, renewables--and that's where the wagering should be
. Nuclear is dead meat. (March 14)

THE AFGHAN WAR WILL GET 15 MINUTES of attention in the coming days as General David Patraeus comes back to report before Congress. He will be upbeat. But there continues to be little indication that upbeatness is warranted. For example, the defeat of the Taliban in this area included leveling entire villages. Somehow, the residents are not so ready to sign up for Operation Enduring Freedom. The matter of civilian casualties came up again earlier this week as some figures for 2010 were released, all showing between 2500-2800 civilians killed, mostly by the Taliban. If we know anything, it is that these numbers are off by a factor of probably four or more. And those even identified as civilians are too low. My guess is that 10,000-15,000 civilians were killed last year, making the ten year toll close to 100,000 or more. Even with the inadequate counts, the U.N. says it was the deadliest year for civilians. Now there's something to be upbeat about. (March 11) AND KARZAI DID NOT APPARENTLY GET THE MEMO: Speaking to bereaved villagers, President Karzai, our man in Kabul, told the U.S. to leave the country because we're killing too many civilians. (March 13). UPDATE: Patraeus "upbeat." (March 15)

MY OP-ED IN THE BOSTON GLOBE, about the Peter King hearings on Muslim "radicalization," is a kind of natural experiment that shows how prevalent and loathsome anti-Muslim feeling is in this country. Have a quick look at the 250+ comments, about 80% of which are insanely hate-filled and misinformed. As I commented three posts ago, anti-Muslim feeling--no, hysteria--is growing and if anything is getting more aggressive, more threatening, and uglier. (March 10)

THE WISCONSIN SHOWDOWN over collective bargaining rights is saddening for many reasons--it's not just Wisconsin, for one thing--but it is most surely a sign of sharp decline in America, and that is tragic. Hard won rights that benefitted the aspiring middle class are being stripped away from those very workers--teachers, firefighters, cops, social workers, et alia--who help the middle class the most. And the middle class is aiding and abetting their own demise by electing Republicans (and some Democrats) who are aggressively hollowing out the middle class dream. Paul Krugman had a column a few days ago making the case that going to college, which is very expensive for middle class parents, no longer results in the long-assumed promise of a decent career. Tax cuts for the wealthy make services (like loans for college) squeezed or eliminated. That's why discussions about income inequality and public goods and services are so important. We are losing something very precious and exemplary about America, and the country will pay a high price--is paying a high price--as a result. (March 9)

LIBYA: TWO QUESTIONS.  The kerfuffle over whether to establish a no-fly zone over Libya raises at least two issues. First, who is the opposition we would be protecting? The rationale for military action is to protect civilians (note the heightened concern for civilians who are not Iraqis or Afghans), but it would also be a political tilt to--or a decisive blow for--the opposition. Who are they? It's not clear at all, and most reports that seem informed are describing a fractured and possibly fratricidal hodgepodge. I see no reason to fear jihadis, but an incoherent and bloodied group coming to power brings its own set of problems. That's not a reason to back Qaddafi, but it is a yellow flag.
         The second matter is the involvement of the U.S. and American corporations in supplying Qaddafi since President Bush lifted sanctions in 2004. Reporter Marcus Baram has a disturbing account of the neck-deep involvement, including supply of weapons that could/are being used in repression now. This is, of course, an old American story, bipartisan and often disgraceful. Its root is that old devil oil, just as it has been in so many places. Reagan-Bush and Saddam. Nixon and the Shah. Everybody and the Saudis, et cetera. Trying to soften Libya under Qaddafi with better relations made some sense -- no argument there -- but the unseemly rush to exploit oil rather than emphasize a more open society was the U.S. priority. (Another Bush "Freedom Agenda" triumph.) Sadly, it seems what we always do, and the learning curve is very flat.
         For what it's worth, I tend to agree with Steve Walt: military intervention could bring messy and unexpected consequences. One hopes, and the U.S. could encourage, the Arab League and other non-U.S. bodies to take action, particularly if the fighting worsens or persists. But the symbolism of U.S. military action there now is not going to help us or them in the longer run. (March 7/8). Update: A sensible and informative piece from Robert Pape, University of Chicago. (3/13)

AFTER 9/11, HATE SPEECH AND SOME ATTACKS AGAINST MUSLIMS occurred, and while regrettable, I thought at the time that the numbers and ferocity of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab incidents were less than what might have been expected. More institutionalized forms of "Islamophobia" appeared in the years following, but, again, I thought it might have been worse. I did a fair amount of work on this at the Social Science Research Council, so these were not just idle observations. What now surprises me is how persistent this hatred is. Not only the demented circus of the anti-"mosque" crowd in Manhattan, but broad, relentless, septic hatred against all Muslims, no matter what. That this earns no opprobrium from Republican leaders and the right wing generally, and little actual attention from the news media, speaks volumes. It is one of the only forms of hatred that is tolerated in America. And if you don't think this exists, look at this video recording a charity event in LA last month and the vile protestors and congressmen participating. It is incited by Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, and the other extremists of the right, but this psychosis is broader than any one provocateur could engineer. (March 5)

THE WIKILEAKS DOCUMENTS SHOW ABOUT 400,000 DEATHS IN IRAQ, not the 115,000 claimed last fall when the documents were released and widely reported. Columbia University public health graduate students, led by Professor Les Roberts, cross-checked the Wikileaks documents (essentially "after action" reports) with the Iraq Body Count (IBC) database, and find that there are at least three to four hundred thousand deaths. When the military documents released by Wikileaks are matched against the IBC database, only about 20-30% do. That means that the number based just on these sources would reach several hundred thousands. (That is, IBC has about 100,000 civilians killed by violence in Iraq; but if that database is missing 70-80% of these fatalities, as indicated by comparing the two databases, then the number of civilians killed by direct violence would be at least 350,000 or more, depending on other factors.)
          These numbers are a baseline, because many deaths were not reported in the media or by the U.S. soldiers and marines writing the reports listed by Wikileaks and IBC. Many of those called insurgents by U.S. authorities would not be included, nor are those who died not by direct violence but in other ways as a result of the war. So the total deaths for the war are likely to be very close to what the household surveys were indicating--nearly one million by now. For a full rendering of of the Columbia University study, see this. (March 4, 9)

ENOUGH WITH THE BUSH FREEDOM AGENDA as a cause of the upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. Charles Krauthamer in the Washington Post yesterday upped the ante on declaring George W. Bush's Mideast policies as the inspiration to overthrow dictators in the region. Sorry. A few facts:
           o  The "Bush Doctrine" is not about democratization. It was a justification for launching a pre-emptive war.
           o  Taking some preventive action in Libya--such as a no-fly zone--is not akin to invading countries, occupying them for years, and killing hundreds of thousands of them. (Although I think any military action in Libya is unwise.)
           o  The Egyptian activists organized themselves in part, and initially, as opposition to the invasion of Iraq. There was never any support for Bush's Mideast policies in the Arab street.
           o  Bush supported Mubarak, utilized his torture chambers, and turned a blind eye to human rights abuse there. He cut a deal with Qaddafi, has longtime ties to the Saudi royal family, supported a nasty war against Lebanon, and never raised a peep about Tunisia. No one who knows the region could plausibly claim that enything Bush did was a precursor to the liberation movements today.
           o This is particularly so because of the war in Iraq, conducted under false premises, and resulting in between a half-million and a million deaths. That is Bush's version of "democratization." (March 4)

THE KILLING OF NINE BOYS IN AFGHANISTAN BY U.S. ROCKET FIRE looks to be following a pattern that has been repeated time and again in that country and Iraq. Civilians are killed. Someone raises a fuss that cannot be totally ignored (in this case, the entire town where the 9-15 year olds lived). Someone "apologizes"--cold comfort, that--and vows an investigation. A one day story, except for the dozens of family members and hundreds (or thousands) of Afghans who will not forgive nor forget. It's a small miracle that the story made it into the news media here, what with Charlie Sheen's meltdown and all, and it's very likely there will never be a followup. The investigation will show some command-and-control problem, or "suspicious activity," or another excuse. But even that will be buried and forgotten. Meanwhile, the same guy who "apologized" (I wonder what he actually said--"sorry for shearing your little boy in two with helicopter cannon fire, but really it's in your own interest"?), General David Patraeus, is glowing about all the success in Operation Enduring Freedom. Apparently, he made a horrid comment about how Afghan parents "burn" their misbehaving children just last week.
       Today at MIT, we had Michael Semple, a longtime Afghanistan hand--he spent more than 20 years there in various posts--who pointed out that all the parties to the conflict are claiming that things are going their way. He has a sensible approach (watch an earlier appearance here)--simply put, finding a political accommodation--but the takeaway for me is that the local militants can always wait longer than the U.S. will, and the thereby the "mission" is doomed. Secretary of Defense Gates as much as acknowledged that a few days ago. (March 3)

THE EGYPT REBELLION is now earning some useful reflection, and two pieces in the New York Review of Books are worth a look. First is Max Rodenbeck, who lives in Cairo as The Economist correspondent there, who makes the important point that as a spark to the rebellion, poverty and rising food prices should not be overlooked. "Economists reckoned unemployment to be double the official level of around 10 percent. Food prices in each of the past four years have risen faster than overall inflation, and far faster than wages. According to the latest census, three quarters of Egypt’s 84 million people live in apartments rather than houses, and the country as a whole has fewer rooms than people. According to one report, some 40 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day." This is the principal challenge for any regime that emerges in Cairo, in my reckoning, the gnawing poverty and lack of a base from which to quickly provide sustainable employment. Facebook and Twitter will not dissolve economic decay.  Second is a somewhat alarming report from Yasmine El Rashidi in Cairo (online only), who notes: "Many are anxious about strikes and growing civil disorder. Or that the banks—closed much of last week—may close again soon. There is general unease about the army and its growing power." And the same problems that have vexed Egypt for decades remain, even as a veneer of normalcy returns. (March 3) 

THIS IS TOO RICH. The invasion of alien cows. A bonanza for bovines. Humans locked up, cows go free. An amusing piece with serious points and many good links to recent research on immigration. The studies blow up the right-wing nonsense about "aliens" and puts the illegal immigration debate in a rational perspective. Among the insights: immigration--even illegal immigration--is a net plus for employment. As noted, I spent several days along the Arizona-Mexico border last week, and the sheer waste of the border control enterprise slaps you in the face: helicopters, F-16s, 12 foot (very expensive) fence, patrols, towers with infrared sensors. At the same time, local employers will tell you they can't get Anglos to do the grunt work. "Homeland security" is a scam to feed the delusions of the xenophobic, and line the pockets of many nimble corporations. (March 2)

TEA PARTY IMPLODING: Broad support for unions and collective bargaining rights nationwide in New York Times/CBS poll today. Right-wing governors trying to bust unions--a longtime wet dream of Republicans, going back to the 1940s--are losing popularity, and fast. I guess the public recalls that the 8-hour day, workplace safety, minimum wage, child labor laws, etc. etc., came to us not through the largesse of employers but through unions and their legal right to organize. Duh. Similar extremism on the right is earning blowback--notably, the insane attack on Michelle Obama's efforts to get Americans to eat healthy foods and exercise, and, of course, the let's destroy the world economy again by voting against raising the debt ceiling. (Did any of these debt hawks vote against raising the ceiling when Bush was president? I don't think so.) The Tea Party and its enablers do not have answers. They just have slogans and scapegoats. That is not a plan for governing. (Feb. 28)

THE OSCAR FOR "INSIDE JOB" for best documentary is not only deserved, but may serve as another little nudge to the powers that be. The film was co-made by Charles Ferguson, a MIT Ph.D., by the way, who rightly pointed out that none of the financial executives has gone to prison--even a country club prison--for the near meltdown of the American (and world) economy they caused. Amazing. If you haven't seen the film, it is a must. Send a copy to your Member of Congress and the Attorney General.

RIDING IN THE HIGH CHAPARRAL THIS WEEK and off the grid. A good feeling to be away as the crazy right wing blows up the economy again....didn't we have enough of them in the last decade? And wasn't Qaddafi the good boy who came in from the cold in 2003 to earn George W's favor? Another trophy of the freedom agenda, I guess. Or maybe Reagan's bombing runs. Anyway, I was in the saddle near The Fence in southern Arizona at the splendid Rancho de la Osa. I've ridden a lot of places around the world but this was maybe the best. Oh, by the way, The Fence ain't working too good, either. (Feb. 27)

RANK AMERICA.  Charles Blow's always enlightening Saturday column compares America's performance in a number of key areas--school achievement, for example--with other industrialized countries, and the results are not happy. Not surprising, but another sign of decline.

BUDGET BLUES. The discourse on the federal budget strikes me as skewed. I have my complaint with Obama, but the matter of "entitlements"--which Obama did not address in the budget but then said he would, with the Republicans!--is grotesquely misrepresented in the news media and among politicians. Even the word "entitlement" for something we've paid is insulting. Moreover, where does one cut Social Security fairly? I have paid the maximum into the SSI fund for probably 15 years or so (meaning I pay the same in dollars as Warren Buffett or Bill Gates), and if I retire at 70, I will receive $36,000 annually. I have other means, but many people do not, and living on $36,000 a year is not something that should be cut. There are other ways to deal with the Social Security budget needs, not least ending the cap on contributions, so that I pay proportionately less than Buffett and Gates. It for many years has thus hurt middle and low-income earners.
        My complaint with Obama is on defense spending, which is excessive by probably a factor of 4 or 5, and which he refuses to cut. As is often said, but not heard, the U.S. spends more on military spending than the rest of the world combined. My guess is that he is not cutting defense because it is a kind of jobs program. These tend to be very pricey jobs, which incur long-term costs, but in an economy desperate for employment, he does not want to cut a federal "stimulus" that the GOP would dare not touch. At the same time, however, as with tax policy and many other public concerns, Obama is essentially burying the liberal vision for America--fairer, sustainable, tolerant, efficient, and diverse--out of an inability to stand up to the emtremists in the opposition. So defense spending will stay high, since unemployment will stay high for the foreseeable future, and we will have little or no chance for many years to bring it down to a level commensurate with actual defense needs. That is a great, and costly, tragedy. (Feb. 17)

EGYPT: ONE OF THE DEBATING POINTS THIS WEEK is the role of social media....Facebook, Twitter, and Google in particular....in the rebellion. Many are extolling its role--not least, of course, those who are mainly bloggers, like the Daily Dish crowd. Some are warier, because social media can be used for repression too, as Evgeny Morosov explained at MIT last week and in his fine book, The Net Delusion. There is little question that social media played a facilitating role, possibly decisive (in part due to the stupidity of the Egyptian regime), but it's important to keep in mind that it is a means of transmission, however clever. What was at root in Egypt--and we have a lot more to learn about this--was decades of repression and poverty, an educated class that could not find work, a union movement of some subtle power, and years of planning and organizing by a variety of actors, all of which gelled with shocking swiftness and effect this winter. Social media helped this, but note that the same media were crushed in Iran less than two years ago (and again yesterday). And note that revolutions have occurred without Twitter: the most surprising and cataclysmic of my lifetime and perhaps the last 100 years occurring in 1989 in Eastern Europe--somehow, pre-Facebook. What does happen in revolutions is that clever revolutionaries seize the means of communications for their own purposes, as Lenin well understood when capturing the telegraph service in the first days of the October Revolution. Al Jazeera, the "old" media, was as instrumental, possibly more so, than the new media in Egypt's rebellion. But the volcano was rumbling long before anyone in Egypt friended anyone else. It had to do with old fashioned oppression and injustice. It was tolerated by the Arab world and indeed by the United States, despite widespread knowledge of abuses. That is the story. The social media are a sidebar. (Feb. 15)

THE PLANNED ASSAULT ON PLANNED PARENTHOOD by the extremists in Congress, the blogosphere, and the grandstanders posing as pimps overlooks the remarkable services PP provides. Notes Joanna Weiss in the Boston Globe: "The group’s annual $79 million in Title X funds, now in the crosshairs of House Republicans, wouldn’t go to abortions, which already are barred from federal funding except in the case of rape, incest, or life endangerment — and which make up only 3 percent of the services Planned Parenthood performs. Title X provides low-income women with breast and cervical cancer screening and STD treatment and prevention. And with contraception, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies that create a demand for abortion in the first place." The assault on Planned Parenthood has gone on for many years, including an attempt to undermine their essential work in Africa and elsewhere. It is insane and malicious, pure and simple. (Feb. 13)

A GALVANIZING SPEECH?   "I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

"That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

"There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

"This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy."

                                                                                          --President Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4, 2009

THE OVERTHROW OF MUBARAK IN A PEACEFUL, CITIZEN UPRISING must be counted as one of the most astonishing events in global politics in many moons. What happens in this situation, with the military taking power, is uncertain, of course, but my bet is that the generals will act responsibly--which is to say, do the things they have promised to do: end detentions and other human-rights violations, and press for free elections within months.
       One aspect that has largely been overlooked is that the Egyptian military, due to the Camp David Accords in part, have been participants in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program of the U.S. Department of Defense (and there are other, related programs). This aspect of military assistance is a way of providing professionalism for young officers, and it includes socializing them to appreciate civilian rule, human rights, and other democratic values. President Obama increased the budget for Egypt's IMET participation sharply, but it is the long-term effects of this program that we may be seeing. This has also played an important part in Turkey's powerful military refraining from entering politics in the last dozen years after having done so many times previously. It's no guarantee of good behavior, but to the extent good behavior is afoot, IMET must be in the mix of congratulations. USAID funding cannot be discounted either; it has supported civil society and other 'democratization' steadily over many years.
        If the military hands over power to a reasonably secular government this year, Obama's handling of this extraordinary set of events is going to look pretty nimble. (Feb. 11)

IRAN CHAOS?  Stanford scholar Abbas Milani has been in the Boston area this week, spoke at MIT, Harvard, and elsehwere, and provided one especially interesting bit: he thinks the Iranian regime crisis that seemed to be solved by the crackdown a year ago is in fact at a particularly perilous moment of internal factionalism and instability. Supreme Leader Khamanei has apparently been rejected four times in his attempt to meet with leading clerics. Ahmadinejad is in open conflict with parliament and Khamanei, and is openly clashing with former president Rafsanjani, who remains powerful. The Revolutionary Guards are not the monolith we assume; it too has splits that could become significant for the nation's leadership. Little of this is reported in the West, but it adds up to a major crisis. It could be, as another Persian friend tells me, that this is all the machinations of Khamanei reordering politics to his liking, but I think it goes deeper. Soon there will be street demonstrations again, supposedly to support Egpyt's protestors; but the Green Movement sees Khamanei as Pharoah, too. The question, as in Egypt, is where will the institutional power to reform the system come from? Former president Rafsanjani may step up; he gave a rousing statement earlier this week laden with thinly veiled comparisons between Egypt and Iran protests. But people with guns--the army or a faction of the Revolutionary Guards--will also have to step in to counter the enormous cadre of armed thugs the regime has at its disposal. (Feb. 10)
        Meanwhile, the militaristic right in our country is feeding the paranoia of the militaristic right in Iran with a new film called "Iranium," a predictably belligerent screed that apparently is being shown in some commercial (AMC) theaters. The democratic Green Movement in Iran is denouncing the film's proposed threats against Iran. As ever, the crazies in America need the crazies there, and vice versa. It's a profitable scam.

THE BIGGEST PHILANTHROPISTS OF 2010 (in America) are briefly profiled in the Chronicle of Philanthropy this week. What is always striking about this is how such high rollers tend not to be very inventive with their millions, apart from the top giver--George Soros.

THE ROLE OF HIGH FOOD PRICES in the Middle East uprisings will be explored a lot in coming months and years. Rebellion often has unexpected sparks. Paul Krugman takes a crack at an explanation, which centers on global climate change altering food production and prices. If true, a harbinger and not a happy one. Watch those fuel prices, too, which are rather high for February. It never ceases to amaze how we continue to ignore climate change and energy policy. The right wing is in complete denial of global warming, and the grip of energy corporations on Washington is breathtaking. To future generations--like our children's--our dependence on fossil fuels and our refusal to deal with it will appear like slavery looks to us today: abhorent, stupid, and tragic. (Feb. 7)

Too funny to pass up is Bill O'Reilly's pitiful attempt to sound religious in rejecting scientific explanations for the tides. Apropos of the Bill Maher show comment below. Here is Discover magazine's takedown. (Feb. 6)

"Biutiful" is not only a stunning film showcasing more Javier Bardem brilliance, but a harrowing reminder of how so much of the world lives, and we ignore.

THE REAGAN CENTENARY IS BEING CELEBRATED BY HIS ADMIRERS, but the things one would want to celebrate about him--his optimism, his flexibility as a politician, and his growth as a statesman (especially in responding to Gorbachev)--are the qualities conservatives most abhor. They are now bitter and pessimistic; rigid and uncompromising; and wholly unwilling to seek detente with mortal adversaries. Some of what they associate with him, particularly his "small government" and balanced budgets, his toughness with enemies, his moral clarity, are large fictions. Government and deficits grew quickly under Reagan; he bent a long way to the Soviets when it suited him, "cut and ran" from the Mideast after the marine barracks bombings in Beirut in 1983, and compromised like all politicians.

Along the way, Reagan did some horrible things. He wasted untold billions on the military. He put into effect (with Margaret Thatcher) the market-based policies for the developing world which ended a long period of growth for the global south and ushered in a predatory climate in which transnational corporations have thrived and the third world has suffered. And he funded thugs throughout the world in his hideous "Reagan Doctrine." As a result, millions died in Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Cambodia. He backed the apartheid regime in South Africa. He backed thugs in Argentina and Guatemala. If it had not been for the fortuitous rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan's need for a public relations reset after the Iran-contra affair, his foreign policy would have been judged very harshly across the political spectrum. He was, to be sure, a remarkable politican. But a paragon he was not, not for anybody with any sense of history or, indeed, of dignity. (Feb. 5)

NOW WHAT? That is always the hard question for protestors in Egypt as the tough guys crack down and the faint-hearted stay home. Scott Atran has his usual, knowledgeable take in the Times, pointing out that the Muslim Brotherhood is not the threat the alarmists on Fox News and Israel warn. He sees a long transition. But need it be that long....10 years? The challenge in the coming months is to prevent Mubarak from jailing, torturing, killing opposition leaders and ensuring there is in fact a fair election. That will not be easy once Anderson Cooper returns to New York. Mubarak doesn't look like a man about to leave, so, what's next? How to maintain an opposition that will leverage change months from now? One small answer: American civil society--the human rights groups and such--can bear witness, report, and keep our attention riveted. (Feb. 3)

WAS THIS PART OF THE BUSH "FREEDOM AGENDA"? BBC reports that:

MORE NONSENSE ABOUT EGYPT. Right on cue, Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe makes the claim that Bush's "freedom agenda" is responsible for the liberationist movement in Egypt--even going so far as to call this the "Bush Doctrine." He seems to forget that the three things Muslims remember most about Bush are launching a war in Iraq (one million dead, thanks to the actual Bush Doctrine) and Afghanistan (200,000 dead), supporting Israel unreservedly, including calling their bloody assault on Lebanon "the birth pangs of the new Middle East," and labeling all resistance to U.S. influence and its toady allies "terrorists." Yossi Klein Halevi in the New York Times writes, "Israelis fear that Egypt will go the way of Iran or Turkey, with Islamists gaining control through violence or gradual co-optation." Turkey's AKP party, mildly "Islamist," has won power through several democratic elections with high voter turnout, and indeed has done so in the face of military intimidation. Are there fact checkers at the Times? (Feb. 2)

CLIMATE HOLOCAUST DENIAL. I was struck by Republican denial of climate change while watching Bill Maher's show from January 28. He had on two panelists, one from National Review and a congressman from Georgia, who insisted that climate change science was not settled. The congressman went so far as to say, take the science out of Washington politics and do it in the labs. The ignorance of these assertions is stunning. Hundreds of scientists have been doing the "lab" work for more than 20 years at the most prestigious universities in the world. And that's precisely why climate change science is settled. The right wing is veering toward something like Holocaust denial on this. In fact, climate change is likely to dwarf the Holocaust in its consequences for human life. Here is a good antidote to Republican know-nothingism from the excellent Bill McKibben in AlterNet. (Feb. 2)

IF YOU WERE WONDERING HOW THE RIGHT WING WOULD SPIN EGYPT, now we know. According to Limbaugh, Breitbart, and Beck, it is a plot Obama hatched with Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn to bring Islamofascism to the entire region, destroy Israel, and eventually take over America. I kid you not. Other right-wingers are saying that we libs must admit that the Bush democratization agenda was just the best thing for the region and is the key ingredient in liberating Egypt (if that is what's in store). Funniest thing is that Bush supported Mubarak as avidly as all the other U.S. presidents, and much of the anger in the streets was stirred by Mubarak being Bush's toady on Iraq and indeed on Gaza. The right is also stirring fears of the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, mislabeling them terrorists (the MB seems authentically nonviolent). The fact is, the right seems befuddled by the turmoil in the Middle East, because, by golly, it's complicated, and, worse, Obama is acquitting himself well and more powerfully every day. (Feb. 1)

SUBSIDIES FOR OIL COMPANIES? The Republicans never really responded to Obama's call in his State of the Union address for ending government subsidies to oil companies. (He could have added nuclear power, which has always lived off of taxpayer largesse.) Now comes the news that Exxon Mobil profits rose more than 50% in the fourth quarter of 2010, to nearly $10 billion. What chances are there that the House will end those subsidies? (Feb. 1)

ISRAEL REENTERS CENTER STAGE. The most obvious U.S. concern in the region is Israel, and finally the news media are refocusing their lenses on the impact of a genuine, Egyptian democracy--if that's what is in store--on Israeli security. The story is complicated by the Al Jazeera documents released last week, which showed the PA rather supplicant, but, as many point out, a willing partner for peace. Today, the New York Times ran a series of short articles mainly by Israelis and U.S.-based Arabs that were very conventional. No negotiations possible, it seems, to settle the I-P impasse. This morning, I received a memo from Saab Erekat, the PA negotiator, defending himself from inferences drawn from the Al Jazeera stories. A teapot tempest in many ways, but doubtlessly damaging within Palestine. Here are two rather shattering events--the revelations embarassing the PA and the demonstrations in Egypt, and yet the status quo endures. Even if the basics remain the same, they need constant attention, which is well argued by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in the New York Review (before the Egyptian protests). But surely the urgency on all sides must be heightened, and that can be a spark for a breakthrough. (Feb. 1)

AGAIN THE NEWS FROM EGYPT IS EXCITING, but stirs as much anxiety as it does hope. The anxiety comes from knowing that despots can be very effective at suppressing dissent. It comes from seeing the noble ElBaradei offering himself up and noticing the similarity to Kerensky and Bahktiar. It strikes deep when realizing that the Muslim Brotherhood, founded 80 years ago, knows the meaning of the "long game," and is best poised to win an election somewhere not too far down the road. None of these things in and of themselves should cause despair, but it gives pause. (Jan. 31)

A JOINT STATEMENT ON IRAN organized by the indefatigable Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council calls for more and more clever diplomacy, which is to say more realistic, and initiatives broader than the nuclear file. I signed it without reservations. You can read it here. Some 18 months ago, I argued in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that resetting the relationship by negotiating nuclear matters first was risky, and this has proved correct. I drew that from a white paper, perhaps too optimistic, that I'd written before the summer of '09 crackdown in Iran. What to do now with the ever-more recalcitrant Iranian leaders is vexing, to say the least. My sense is to put it on the back burner. Looking around the world, Iran does not really look all that important, and they won't deal with us anyway. As all seem to acknowledge, the nuclear "threat," always exaggerated, has now been wormed. Cooling heels might be the way to go for some months. (Jan. 31)

THE EGYPTIAN MYSTERY will unfold for many weeks, and anyone who says they know what will happen is blowing smoke. These kinds of situations are inherently unpredictable. From these shores we could look at the collapse of the Pahlavi regime in Iran, to site the obvious parallel, and think we saw a despot running and an unusual, charismatic religious figure aligning himself with democrats and leftists. What then occurred over the next months and years and decades was almost completely unexpected. The course of war and politics in Iraq and Afghanistan have defied prediction. We don't know the strength of the demonstrators, we don't know what Mubarak loyalists will do, or the army, or the Muslim Brotherhood. We don't know what lurks in the shadows that is now completely unseen. Chances are in my reckoning that something like a Mubarak state will prevail (possibly without him), or Egypt will become a Lebanon-type place with fractured politics ad growing internal tensions.
    Given that uncertainty, Obama has thus far made no obvious errors in public, and what we know of behind-the-scene manuevers look about right. He is more constrained than usual in this case because the entire region looks like dry kindling, and the Israel Lobby must be weighing in heavily. Based on pure U.S. interests, and the broader interests of democratic principles, a transitional government, possibly headed by El Baradei, would be welcome, with proper elections down the road. But those elections could yield a nasty surprise, a la Hamas in Gaza.
     Possibly the one sure thing that can be said is that now is a good time for Israel to strike a deal with Syria and the Palestinians. Within months, possibly weeks, Israel could be surrounded by much more hostile states, and Palestinian politics have been roiled by the Al Jazeera documents about Fatah's negotiating record. This kind of instability may lead Netanyahu to dig in his heels, but surely some cooler heads are saying, let's get the deals while we can. I hope Obama and Clinton are whispering those thoughts behind the scenes as well. (Jan. 30).

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Frances Fox Piven, an old friend and teacher, is under attack from Glenn Beck for supposedly fomenting violent revolution, and the extremist right is piling on.
What is peculiar about this absurd set of charges, however, is how liberal defenders of Piven against Beck's incendiary rhetoric (again leading to anonymous threats against his target) nonetheless distance themselves from her advocacy of "disruptive" demonstrations by the poor and unemployed, and her strategy of piling onto the welfare rolls (c. 1966) to force the government to respond. While one can have honest disagreements about tactics, the fact is that income inequality has widened dramatically since the 1960s, and the percentage of Americans who are poor is now very near the post-1945 high. What that means in the simplest terms is that the moderate to conservative policies to alleviate poverty--presumably, close to these liberal commentators' preferences--have failed miserably. Piven and her late partner, Dick Cloward, were at least correct in seeing that without massive public protest (non-violent, rest assured), the powers-that-be won't respond to inequality and poverty. And the numbers don't lie: they were, and are, correct.